Burlington County fire districts in no rush to merge

For years, officials in Beverly and Edgewater Park have talked about possibly consolidating their two fire districts, but they never moved forward with the idea, in part because state law was silent on the issue.

That changed last month, when Gov. Chris Christie signed into law legislation that not only permits fire districts to merge, but also spells out required actions the districts and their respective municipal governing bodies need to take.

But just because there is now a pathway for district mergers doesn't mean that Beverly and Edgewater Park or any of the other 16 districts in Burlington County are in any kind of rush to consolidate.

"It's still a work in progress," Edgewater Park Fire District Commissioner John Loftus said last week about the status of the proposed merger between the two districts.

Other fire commissioners across the county said that they have had some discussions with their counterparts in neighboring districts about possible mergers, but that it has never progressed beyond talk.

"I know it's been talked about before, but it hasn't gone anywhere," Chesterfield Fire District 1 Commissioner Dana Boyadjian said last week. "There are probably some people in this district that would be for it, but there's also a lot of separate history."

The fire districts are small government entities — independent of their municipal governing bodies — that oversee fire protection in their territories, and in some cases emergency medical services as well. They have the power to tax, but residents get the chance to vote to approve or reject their proposed budgets during annual fire district elections on the third Saturday in February.

This tradition of local control is called home rule, and overcoming it is just one of the obstacles that often stands in the way of fire district mergers.

While combining two or more fire districts may seem like an easy way to reduce redundant administrative costs and spread the burden of paying for equipment and services among a larger tax base, fire commissioners in the county said the details of merging are often very sticky and difficult.

Take Chesterfield and its two fire districts. They may share the name, but commissioners said there are substantial differences.

District 1 employs a mix of volunteers and professional firefighters and has a much larger budget and tax base than District 2, which relies entirely on volunteers.

Combining them would likely produce unequal tax savings, if any, Boyadjian said.

"They don't have paid firemen, but we do," he said. "There's also the two firehouses. Would we keep them both or build a new one in between the two? Would it save money in the long run? I don't know. Not if we have to spend $2 million on a new firehouse."

Impediments to merging

Jack Homa, a commissioner with Chesterfield District 2, said the possibility of losing volunteers and the local firehouse would be major impediments to merging.

"We have an excellent fire company, and District 1 does, too. But if we had paid members, we might lose some of our volunteers," Homa said. "I guess if it was forced upon us, we'd have to go along. But right now, there's no interest from either side. It's a stalemate."

The legislation signed by Christie does not force mergers. Instead, it provides a way for districts to consolidate if elected officials in the districts and municipalities choose to pursue it.

The law first requires the boards of commissioners to approve pursuing a merger with separate resolutions. Once that occurs, the town or towns involved would be required to work with the districts to develop a consolidation plan that includes a first-year budget for the consolidated district as well as details about how assets and debts will be reapportioned.

A public hearing is required after any consolidation plan is completed. After the hearing, the governing bodies of the towns involved would be required to vote on a resolution to finalize the merger.

Unlike a municipal merger, a voter referendum is not required.

If approved by the governing bodies, the districts would merge following the next fire district election, during which new commissioners for the consolidated district would be elected.

The legislation was originally penned by Assemblymen Herb Conaway, D-7th of Delran, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, in response to interest from Edgewater Park and Beverly about merging their districts.

Edgewater Park has no active fire companies, so the fire district contracts with Beverly to provide protection. Under the current contract, Edgewater Park is scheduled to pay $278,524 for the 2016 calendar year.

While the legislation was written with Beverly and Edgewater Park in mind, both lawmakers have said they hope other districts pursue the idea.

"Allowing fire districts to consolidate is a means of reducing costs for municipalities, which ultimately benefits taxpayers," Conaway said after the bill was signed into law. "The voluntary, streamlined and transparent procedure that this law calls for will help navigate the consolidation process."

Loftus said Edgewater Park and Beverly remain interested in merging, but he doubted the consolidation plan would be ready before next year's elections.

"We're working on it. But there's a whole bunch of steps they've got to do and we've got to do still," he said. "We're hoping we can make some real progress, but I doubt we'll be ready within the next year. We're going to get it done. It's just going to take some time."

Time can be an obstacle

Time itself can be a big obstacle. In Moorestown, the separate fire districts date back over a century.

Shortly after the Legislature created fire districts in 1879 to administrator fire protection, Moorestown Fire District No. 1 was established in order to protect the village of Moorestown, then part of a larger municipality known as Chester, which also included what is now known as the Lenola section of Moorestown and Maple Shade.

"Moorestown Fire District No. 1 was the first one to be established," said Chris Chesner, administrator for the district.

Lenola formed its own fire district in 1913 and became Moorestown Fire District No. 2 after Moorestown and Lenola separated from Chester in 1922.

Even though the districts remain separate, both administrators said the two already work together.

"If we have a big fire, we all go," Chesner said of the firefighters responding from Hope Hose Company No. 1 and Relief Engine Company in Moorestown Fire District No. 1 and the Lenola Fire Company in Moorestown Fire District No. 2.

"Operationally speaking, we work very well with Moorestown Fire District No. 2," he said.

Beyond fighting fires, the two districts also reached a shared-service agreement in 2015 to create a single township Bureau of Fire Prevention for fire inspections and other services. The bureau has two full-time and two part-time inspectors and one fire official.

Previously, both districts had their own inspectors and officials.

The two are expected to save a combined $1.2 million over the next 10 years from the change, said Liz Booth, administrator for Moorestown Fire District No. 2.

"Establishing the agreement between the districts went well due in large part to both boards having a shared vision to find cost savings while maintaining services provided to both residents and businesses," Booth said.

Chesterfield's two districts also have shared-service agreements for training, supplies and fire engine maintenance. They are also negotiating an agreement to have a paid firefighter from District 1 stationed at District 2's firehouse, Homa said.

"The shared-services agreements have worked really well," he said.


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